By Mary Robinette Kowal
Maxwell Sanders pressed the phone closer to his ear as if that would somehow bring comprehension. “Did you say trolls?”
“Yes, Max.” With her words, he could picture Amalia’s rigid posture.
He ran a hand over his scalp. “I can’t redo the aluminum plant blueprints because your foreman believes in fairytales.”
In the silence, static hissed faintly on the line, reminding him that she was in Iceland. “I know what it sounds like, but eighty percent of the population here believes in fairies, elves, and trolls. So when the foreman tells me they won’t continue construction of the plant because we’re intruding into troll territory I can’t just ignore him.”
She was silent long enough that Max thought he had lost the connection, then her voice crept across the ocean to his office in New York. “I think we’re beyond that.”
Max drummed his fingers on his desk before reaching for his calendar. “Want me to come out there and talk to them?”
“Do you have the time?”
If he still had hair, it would have stood on end. Amalia should tell him she could handle it, like always. She should become a little prickly at his suggestion that she might need help. She should not sound relieved. Max realized he was holding his breath and let it out slowly. “Sure, I’ve got time,” he lied. “I’ll catch the next plane.”
* * * *
The windowless lobby at the Keflavik airport weighed on Max like claustrophobia waiting to happen. Amalia stood near one of the concrete pillars that squatted under the ceiling. A smile touched her lips and moved on, as if it were uncomfortable on her face. She submitted to a New York greeting, returning the kiss to the air by his cheek with efficiency, but her posture was strained beyond rigid. “Do you want to rest at your hotel until it’s light, or go straight to the job site?”
“Let’s hit the site.” Did she flinch? “I can rest this afternoon.”
“Did you bring a hat? It’s raining.”
Max shrugged. “A little rain never hurt anyone.”
He followed Amalia out the sliding door to the parking lot. As soon as he stepped outside, the rain cut across his face. Sheets of water blew horizontally through a parking lot illuminated under yellow lamps. Beyond the pools of sickly light, night seemed to clutch the earth.Running across the lot, he tucked his chin into his coat while cold needles of rain pricked the side of his face.
Amalia pulled her hood closer to her head and turned slightly towards him. “Welcome to Iceland.”
It was the closest he had ever heard her come to a joke.
* * * *
Treeless mountains, a deeper black than the sky, undulated on either side of the car. As they drove, only the reflectors on either side of the road broke the night.
Max glanced at his watch. 9:37 a.m. “What time does the sun come up this time of year?”
“Around ten a.m.” Amalia was silent, and then spoke again, as if to apologize for not knowing the exact time. “It’s hard to tell with the overcast.”
She said very little else on the drive up to the site in Straumsvík. Max had been to Iceland only once before, as part of the initial scouting for his client. Since then Amalia had handled everything with her customary efficiency. He glanced at her as she drove. She had never been chatty, but now she seemed to have withdrawn into herself; her hands were tight on the steering wheel.
Without light pollution from towns and cities, the amber lights of the jobsite glowed against the bottom of the clouds, mocking the dawn.
Amalia pulled the car to a halt in a gravel lot. The wind buffeted the car as if it were angry with them. Great machines hunched on the rocky landscape, waiting for their drivers.
Max raised his eyebrows. “No workers?”
“Everything stopped yesterday.” Amalia clenched her fists on the steering wheel. “I’ll show you.”
As he climbed out of the car, the wind hurled pellets of rain at him. He pulled the collar of his coat farther up his neck and followed Amalia across the site.
Next to the beginning of a foundation hole, a backhoe lay on its side. The mangled arm of the yellow machine lay like some massive beast brought down in a hunt. He sucked in his breath. What could twist steel like a candy wrapper? Hydraulic fluid seemed to bloody the dark ground beneath it.
“Christ, Amalia! You had an accident on the jobsite and you didn’t tell me?” He wiped the rain off his scalp, ignoring the rain that continued to sweep across them. He waved his hand at the backhoe. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“Because I only believe it when I’m standing here. Would you have believed me in New York?”
“What’s to believe? A backhoe fell over.”
She looked away from him.
Max turned to follow her gaze, stumbling on the broken lava as a tall Icelander joined them. The man looked like a Viking in modern dress.
“Max, this is Snorri Gunnarsson, my foreman.” Snorri? What kind of name was that? It sounded like one of the seven dwarves.
Max stuck out his hand to greet him. “Got any theories on how this happened?”
“What the–?” The wind snatched the breath from his throat. “You’re telling me trolls did this?”
Snorri pointed to a pair of boulders at the nose of the backhoe. The rocks hunched on the ground like giant quarterbacks sleeping. “Those are the Twins,” he said, as if that somehow explained things.
“Can you elaborate?”
“Já. They are trolls caught by sunrise. We noticed them earlier, but there was a chance they did not have family near.”
Max waited to see if the man was joking. He had faint memories of a story where trolls turned to stone in daylight, but this was not a fairy tale, for crying out loud!
“Nothing else could have done this?”
Snorri shook his head once. “Já, it is possible, perhaps, wind could knock the backhoe over, but that,” he pointed at the twisted metal in the neck of the backhoe, “is not the work of wind.”
Max followed Snorri’s gesture and stared at the backhoe again. How in the name of all that’s holy had that happened? “A prank?”
“Nei.” The single negative dropped like a rock between them.
“Max,” Amalia stepped closer, “we were here when it happened.”
“You saw a troll?” Christ. She had gone crazy.
“No.” She hugged her coat closer to herself and recited as if she had rehearsed the words. “Lúdvík was driving the backhoe. No one was watching because he was a good operator. With the other machines running, we didn’t hear anything until it hit the ground.”
“I thought you were just talking about local beliefs on the phone.” The wind seemed to howl through his mind. “Tell me, you don’t think trolls did this.”
“I–I don’t know.”
Max let out a low whistle and looked at the stains on the ground again. “What did the driver say?”
She held very still and watched the horizon. “He’s dead.”
* * * *
Max paced around the tiny space in front of Amalia’s desk. Trolls. He looked out the window at the backhoe; its long arm stretched out in a wreck of metal. He had spent hours looking at the damage, at the ground around it, talking to Amalia about what she had seen. His mind kept returning to the same question: What could cause that sort of damage?
A quick knock sounded at the door of the trailer. Max snapped, “Come in!”
Snorri stepped into the tiny office. “It is 4:30. We should go now.”
Amalia stood and reached for her coat. Max glared at her. “We aren’t leaving yet.” She thought there were trolls? Then they would stay to see them.
With her hand on her coat, she flinched and turned her head away from him. Snorri said, “It is not safe here, after sundown.”
“We’ll be fine.” Max tightened his lips in a smile. “Thanks for your concern.”
Wind shrieked around the jobsite, shaking the trailer as if looking for a way in. Snorri hesitated in the doorway. “Amalia, would you like a ride?”
Faintly, her head still averted, she said, “No, thank you Snorri. I’ll stay here with Max.”
Snorri licked his lips and nodded once. “Vertu blessuð.” The wind slammed the door behind him.
“What did he say?”
Amalia took her hand from her coat and sank back into her chair. “Goodbye. The formal form, ‘Go with blessings.’”
Max glared out the window. The wind drove unbroken across the lava fields, whipping over rocks mounded with green moss. Nothing could convince him that an angry troll was wandering around outside.
“Amalia, this is nuts.”
With her arms crossed, she gripped her elbows as if she were holding herself together. “I know.”
“Yes.” She sat straight in her chair, her posture as rigid as he had remembered. “I’ve asked you to come out from New York because of fairy tale creatures. I want you to redesign your plans because I’ve suddenly developed a belief in the supernatural.” She paused, swallowing, before continuing with icy calm. “It seemed very clear yesterday, but I know how it sounds, so I waited until you got here to tell you everything. I thought once you were here you would understand.”
Max knelt in front of her. “Look. It’s tragic that this guy died, but industrial accidents happen. Making up a fairy tale won’t bring him back to life.”
She held herself so stiffly he could see tremors in her arms. “You weren’t here.”
“And you were. You told me yourself no one saw this thing. It was a freak accident.” What had happened to her? “There’s no such thing as trolls.”
“I know, but I’m staring at Occam’s Razor here and it’s–” she broke off. “It’s about to cut my throat. I don’t know what else to believe.”
“So, we’ll get someone out to investigate the accident and they’ll tell you the ground shifted, or it was wind or–”
Max cringed at the madness touching the corners of Amalia’s eyes. She pushed a business card over to him. “We called the police yesterday; they gave me this card.”
Max scowled at the card. “An elf medium?” He ran his hand over his scalp. “Is this a joke?”
“An elf medium is a person who can see elves and communicate with them.”
“Great. Now we’ve got elves running around too? What are they afraid of, that Tinkerbell is going to sprinkle fairy dust on the bulldozers and take them to Neverland?”
Amalia thrust herself out of her chair. “Give me another answer Max, and I will happily believe it.
“The wind is strong here.” As he said it, a gust rattled the trailer. “I was just reading on the internet about how the wind knocked over a tour bus last week. It ripped the asphalt off the road up north.
“I want you to be right.” She stared out the window at the gathering gloom of the worksite. Rain spread horizontally across the glass. “You know the specs on these as well as I do. I can buy that the wind knocked the backhoe over, but explain to me how it also twisted the steel arm completely around and crushed a man’s skull. What has that much torque?”
“I don’t know.” He watched his reflection in the plate glass approach Amalia. “But it’s not trolls.” He reached past her and pointed at the Twins. “Look. They’re rocks. Not trolls. Rocks.”
“Would it have made it easier for you to redo the plans if I had said I agreed with you, but we had to appease the locals?” Her voice was icy calm again.
He had felt safer when her madness was closer to the surface. “Maybe.”
Amalia leaned her head against the glass.
Max sat down, tired beyond jetlag. “Okay. So what do you want me to do?”
“Redo the plans.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why?” She faced him again, straightening her spine. “If I told you we’d found a graveyard, you’d do it. How is respecting their belief in trolls any different than respecting the rotting remains of people dead so long no one remembers them?”
“Look, you know there’s a diff–”
The trailer lifted a foot in the air and dropped. Amalia fell to her knees. Outside, a howl filled the spaces between the wuthering rain.
Something large moved through the dusk. Max gripped the arms of his chair, white-knuckled, and stared out the window. The trailer shuddered forward and slid off the foundation blocks holding it up. For an unbelieving moment, Max watched the floor fall away from him, as the trailer tipped on its side and then gravity snared the room.
He flailed down toward the wall. Books rained past him. The room buried them in a flood of papers and furniture.
Max scrabbled at the papers covering his face, pushing them away in mindless panic. Pain burned like fire down his left leg. He twisted trying to get away from the hurt. He reached with his hands, seeking the thing that held him, and brushed a smooth metal surface. Catching for breath he tried to calm himself. A desk. Amalia’s desk had fallen on him.
In the dark room, he could hear nothing. Outside, the wind pounded against the trailer, shaking it and howling to get in.
“Amalia?” His voice was barely a whisper.
Relief poured through him, cooling his panic. “Are you okay?”
It seemed like an eternity before she answered. “I don’t think so.”
“What?” Panic returned like a fever. “What’s wrong?”
“I landed on the window.”
Window? Understanding hit him. It must have shattered under her. Into her. “Is it bad?”
He twisted to see her, but the desk held him firmly in place. “The desk is on my leg.”
“I thought it might be.” She was silent. How could she be so calm? He could imagine the furrow in her brow as she considered. “Will you be able to get the desk off?”
He sat up. The movement sent lines of agony up his leg. Sweat beaded on his scalp.
With his fingers under the lip of the desk, he pushed up. Pulled. Strained and twisted against the weight. It shifted slightly, grinding his bones together. At the pain, Max fell back. He lay panting, with his face in his hands. “I can’t.” Max wanted to cry but had no air in his lungs.
“Thank you for trying.” She sounded as calm as if a fax had not come through.
“I’m sorry.” He slammed his fist into the wall beneath him. “Amalia, I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. We couldn’t leave now anyway.”
Again, he arched his neck in the direction of her voice, struggling to see her. “Why?”
“The door is on this side.”
Max cursed under his breath. The silence stretched between them. Outside, the howling seemed to double and treble, rising and falling like a tide of sound. He felt the tremors of wind through the wall under him. Something slapped rhythmically against the side of the trailer, like a tree-branch keeping time in the wind. He willed himself to remember seeing trees among the barren mounds of rocks. “How long will we have to wait till someone comes?”
“After sunrise.” She paused. “Maybe later, with the clouds.”
“But that’s not till ten.”
She laughed, and then coughed wetly. “They’re afraid of the trolls.”
The trailer shuddered again. The shriek of metal twisting resonated through the room. Wind suddenly stirred the papers next to him, brushing them with rain.
“What was that?”
Her voice floated in the dark as if it were attached to no one. “Will you feel safer if I tell you it’s the wind?”
Originally published in Apex Magazine, April, 2007
More from Mary Robinette Kowal:
Mary Robinette Kowal is the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Cosmos, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer and voice actor, lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and eight manual typewriters. In 2009, her story “Evil Robot Monkey” earned a Hugo Award nomination.
She has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures and founded Other Hand Productions. Her design work has garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve.